Almost a month ago Fast Company published an article profiling Jenna Lyons and the work she’s done at J.Crew. I knew Lyons had done a lot over the years but it was eye-opening to hear about the change she enacted with her cohort Micky Drexler.
The article shares a lot of smart insights, so many I fear that I’ll end up copy and pasting the entire thing in this post. One example of her wisdom is how she deals with creatives, Which she describes as “the challenge of managing in a subjective realm.”
“There’s no right or wrong answer,” says Lyons. “When someone creates something and puts it in front of you, that thing came from inside of them, and if you make them feel bad, it’s going to be hard to fix, because you’ve actually crushed them.”
This is such an astute remark from a seasoned leader. So much of what a creative person does is subjective, that’s why you need a more seasoned creative to give constructive feedback and help shape the vision. When I’m at work, I try to absorb most of the feedback from non-creative groups and then translate that important 10% or 20% to my creatives. Or if you put it in context of the Internet, I’ll post something to the TFIB Facebook and someone will leave the ultra constructive comment “That’s ugly”, which I promptly delete. There’s nothing constructive and it’s potentially frustrating to the creator.
The other piece that I found particularly inspiring was this paragraph about not “designing into a bucket” and taking risks.
Giving primacy to design involves more than a shift in the power structure. It means running the business in a completely different way. Before Drexler came to J.Crew, designers were ordered to develop products that would meet specific merchandising goals. “We were told we need ‘this bucket’ and ‘this bucket’ and ‘this bucket,’” says J.Crew head of women’s design Tom Mora. “‘I need a merino sweater that is $48 that has a stripe.’ And you are jamming your design into a bucket and that’s what you got–a design in a bucket.” Drexler told Lyons not only to scrap the buckets but also, she says, “‘Don’t tell me what you’re doing, don’t show any of the merchants, just go and do it and then show me.’”
In generating those designs, Lyons’s style and manner give her staff implicit permission to take risks. “Jenna leads by example,” says a former J.Crew employee who worked for Lyons in men’s wear. “She’ll be wearing an oversize men’s cashmere sweater and a maxi skirt of feathers. If you described it to a famous fashion person, it would sound ridiculous. But it’s liberating for everyone who works for her.” Three years ago, J.Crew designer Emily Lovecchio floated an idea for an organza jacket. The fabric was unusual for such a garment because of its delicacy, but Lyons told the team to try it anyway. The jacket ended up on the cover of the J.Crew catalog. When experiments don’t work out as well, all Lyons requires is for her staff to assume responsibility. “Jenna really loves people who are themselves, flaws and all,” says Lovecchio. “If you mess up or totally do the wrong thing, you have to look her in the eye and say ‘I messed this up,’ and she will always say, ‘Okay, we’ll fix it.’”
Working at Disney, a mega-super-corporation, it can sometimes feel exactly this way. There can become way of doing things that become standard… until they stop working. I think this is particularly true for any large company trying to be innovative on the Internet, my line of work. Bringing radical change is difficult, but I think it’s possible. In the Interactive division we’re given a lot of creative freedom to make smart, long-term decisions, thus opting for responsive design, retina imagery, creating our own unique font, etc. It gives the team the ability to innovate and fail, two key lessons for learning.
There are so many more paragraphs I’d like to paste in here, but I’ll just suggest that you read the story yourself and then read it again. It’s almost like it’s become my new personal mantra, to make my life more Lyons-esque in ways. I think Danielle Sacks, the author, should also be commended for writing such a brilliant piece.